November 1903 – Rome

Marjorie’s pastel of The Forum, Pompeii

Marjorie’s European Tour, 1903-1904
Taken from letters to her mother, Bessie

We go back 109 years, and it is November 1903. Twenty-year-old Marjorie was very sorry to be leaving Florence, but madly excited to get to Rome. Miss Helen had asked the hotel in Rome, the Hotel de Russie (still in operation in the heart of the city, between the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo,) to try to secure three tickets to the Consistory at the Vatican that was to take place on November 12. They rushed out to buy black veils and gloves in anticipation, but the day before the event they still had no tickets. However, that evening after dinner “…when we were just giving up thoughts of it…” the tickets arrived. “We fairly shivered in anticipation. It is a great occasion – being the first Consistory,” wrote Marjorie to her mother.

On Thursday the twelfth, at 8:30 a.m. they set of for the Vatican, dressed in an assortment of borrowed long black coats and black taffeta petticoats. On their heads they wore black lace scarves. This was the first public Consistory held by the new Pope Pius X, called to witness the canonization of a new Saint. (Pope Pius was, himself, canonized much later.)

“The scene was a gay one – the whole scheme of coloring being the Papal crimson. The room was a blaze of color, for the black gowns of the ladies only served as a background to set off the gay uniforms of the men. The Papal Guard costume is yellow and black, partly striped, partly plaid, and patched with red. Michael Angelo designed the costume – he wanted it as conspicuous as possible – I think he succeeded! …Then came the Pope himself on foot … he wore a huge silver mitre embroidered with gold and precious gems, a white gown covered with a red gold embroidered cape … a very wonderful sight.”

Following this exciting introduction to Rome, Marjorie spent the next days visiting churches, monasteries, and museums; and the grave sites of Keats and Shelley. They hired an English-speaking guide, Malaspino, who took them to all the famous sites and gave them the history of Rome and its ruins, and then accompanied them along the historic Appian Way to see the villas and the tombs of all the old Patrician families. Malespino took them to the Forum – the political and architectural centre of Old Rome, where the Ancient Romans built beautiful temples to their gods and held feasts in their honor. It was the centre of public life. Marjorie was fascinated to see the rostrum of Julius Caesar where Mark Anthony delivered his famous oration; and the entrance to the Golden House of Nero that was ¾ of a mile long. They visited the prison where St. Peter and St. Paul were imprisoned, and the gravesite of Romulus. The whole Forum area had only been uncovered in 1870, and every few months archeologists were digging up new and fascinating ruins. Marjorie wrote, “I should like to take a spade and dig myself!” They climbed to the very top of the Colosseum and pretended they were slaves watching gladiatorial combats and sham naval battles.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

Later in the month they returned to the Vatican to see the Sculpture Gallery, and to the Palantine Hill where the wonderful “Circus Maximus,” the gigantic stadium of Ancient Rome, stood. “It all seemed near enough to have been yesterday instead of nearly two thousand years ago!”

A quick trip south to Naples and Pompeii was in order before Marjorie’s friend Gertrude had to return to the United States just before Thanksgiving Day. Marjorie loved Naples and would return to that area many times.

Marjorie’s pastel of The Bay of Naples

Marjorie’s pastel of The Bay of Naples

“They call the Bay of Naples the loveliest in the world, and I don’t wonder. And oh the climate of Naples is so perfect – the air so soft and gentle and the fresh, sweet breeze from the sea. Every Italian city has its own special charm, and I think Naples’ is its air and its people – the latter are charming! I believe they can cheat you there worse than other places, but they do it in such a sweet coaxing way, and if you find them out they don’t seem to be upset at all, but think it a huge joke just between you and them. And all the time they have the most beautiful manners and an air of doing it all for your best good. Oh they are delightful! I love them one and all.”

A train took them on a day trip along the coast to Pompeii, at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii was completely buried in A.D. 79, and the ash-covered ruins were only discovered by accident in 1749. Since then, more and more of the once thriving city has been uncovered. Marjorie wrote to Bessie, “But what is uncovered is SO wonderful.”

Marjorie’s pastel of The Forum, Pompeii

Marjorie’s pastel of The Forum, Pompeii

She described the beautiful courtyards filled with statues and arbors, and rooms with their wonderful frescoes, busy little cupids working at various trades – and fruit and animals. They hated to leave it all behind to go back to Naples, but that evening “some really good serenaders came under our windows and sang their pretty soft songs.” They went to the Pompeii Museum, and went shopping. It was Gertrude’s last day, and Marjorie was very sad. Dorothy had left the party several weeks earlier, so the tour would now be only Marjorie and her guide/chaperone, Miss Helen. Later in the week they took a boat to the Island of Capri where the water was beautiful and where they visited the Blue Grotto. They stepped carefully into small cockle shell boats that carried them into the mouth of the cave: “It was heavenly in there, so still and calm and all the water an exquisite silver blue – all shining and rippling. Each boat looked like a glistening fish. The cave is big inside and only lighted from the narrow opening so you can imagine the weird soft coloring. It certainly was a fine experience. The sunset that night was glorious, with the sun dropping down all fiery red beside the hazy blue Capri.”

Thanksgiving Day came and Marjorie and Miss Helen had a special dinner at the hotel, “We had woodcock instead of [turkey] – but otherwise it was quite perfect. We even had nuts at the end, and oh such fascinating preserved grapes – much nicer than raisins – and all done up in a case of grape leaves. We had a beautiful drive this afternoon to celebrate the day and now we are spending the night at charming Sorrento, perched up on a cliff and overlooking the whole Bay of Naples.”

Back in Rome, Marjorie and Miss Helen took advantage of a rainy day to visit the Sistine Chapel. “It is lovelier than ever I dreamt it would be. Oh it is wonderful, every bit of it,” wrote Marjorie.

The next chapter of “Notes from the Archives” (December in Rome), will describe the days leading up to Christmas, Marjorie’s first away from home. There was much excitement in the city, and Marjorie enjoyed the Italian Christmas customs, decorations, and special foods.

2 thoughts on “November 1903 – Rome

  1. Margaret-We enjoyed reading this, as we went to many of those same places.
    We also loved reading your book. You certainly did a lot of research! Looking forward to reading the next excerpt.

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